As a new coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, concerns have emerged that Trump administration cuts to science and health agencies have hampered the U.S. ability to respond.
The virus, which emerged in Wuhan, China at the end of last year, has killed 132 people as of Wednesday morning’s reporting by The New York Times. China has confirmed 5,974 cases and the disease has spread to 16 other countries and Hong Kong. There have been five confirmed cases in the U.S., and people who had not traveled to China have fallen sick in Taiwan, Germany, Japan and Vietnam.
Yet the outbreak comes after a decade of funding cuts has left the U.S. with 50,000 fewer public health employees than it had in 2008, The Nation pointed out. And some have argued that President Donald Trump is uniquely unqualified to handle the emerging disease.
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“Trump’s demonstrated failures of judgment and his repeated rejection of science make him the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge,” former Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden wrote in an opinion piece for USA Today.
Biden pointed to Trump’s proposal to cut funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for International Development. While CNN pointed out that the final budget Trump signed in December actually increased NIH funding by billions of dollars, the administration has overseen several cuts to public health funding during its tenure.
It slashed the Prevention and Public Health Fund (PPHF), which funds state and local health agencies, two times, Common Dreams reported. Its 2017 tax cuts deducted $750 million from the fund and the final 2018 budget set in motion plans to reduce the fund by $1 billion over ten years. The administration also diverted millions from the CDC and NIH in 2018.
However, the attacks on the PPHF began before Trump: President Barack Obama signed a bill in 2012 that siphoned more than $6 billion from its budget to pay Medicare physicians.
Biden also pointed to the departure of Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, the top White House official in charge of responding to pandemics, and the dismantling of his team. The 2018 decision left the National Security Council without any one person in charge of global health security, The Washington Post reported at the time. His replacement, David Wade, has less authority, and the security council’s role in the administration has shifted from leading teams in response to crises to coordinating the response of various agencies, CNN reported.
That means it is unclear exactly who is coordinating the administration’s response to the coronavirus. The White House has not named any one official in charge.
However, the administration maintained it had the outbreak under control.
“The full weight of the U.S. Government is working on this,” a senior administration official said on Tuesday. “As with any interagency effort of this scale, the National Security Council works closely with the whole of government to ensure a coordinated and unified effort.”
The outbreak also comes as funding shortfalls have forced the U.S. to step back from leading the fight against global pandemics. In 2014, Congress passed a funding package to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which included $600 million for the CDC to prevent the spread of infectious diseases worldwide, according to The Washington Post. That money was slated to run out by September 2019, and the administration made no moves to extend it. Because of this, the CDC announced in 2018 that it would roll back its disease prevention efforts by 80 percent and scale back its work in 39 of 49 countries, including China.
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At the time, a group of more than 200 global health organizations sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking the administration to reconsider.
“Not only will CDC be forced to narrow its countries of operations, but the U.S. also stands to lose vital information about epidemic threats garnered on the ground through trusted relationships, real-time surveillance, and research,” the groups wrote at the time, as The Washington Post reported.
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